We had a rough couple of days on the Macaulay websites!  I sent the letter below to the community today–but I thought I would post it here, too, in case anyone missed it.

To the Macaulay Community,

You may have noticed that on Monday and Tuesday of this week, some of the Macaulay websites were inaccessible or carried confusing warning messages in your browser.

The first thing we want you to know is that there was no compromise of your personal data at all.  No files were lost, none of your posts were deleted, all your work was safe and no unwanted software was installed on your computer.

Sometime overnight on Sunday, a malicious hacker attempted to insert a script (which would serve spam to anyone visiting the site) into our web server.  Google constantly combs sites to identify such malicious scripts, and that is why the warnings (which got picked up by most browsers) began on Monday morning.  In order to protect all visitors, we immediately disabled access to the site while we made absolutely sure that there was no security breach and that all possible vulnerabilities were, in fact, closed.

The process of meticulously checking everything on the site and then having Google certify that the site was completely clean took some time, and this meant that for most of Monday and some of Tuesday, our eportfolios, class websites, internship listings, event RSVP system, and other Macaulay-hosted services had to remain inaccessible. We are back up and running now.

Attacks like this are unfortunately one of the common dangers of the digital world these days–but all of our security measures were successful, and even though we experienced some inconvenience, we achieved our goal of protecting our students and all of our community.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me at joseph.ugoretz@mhc.cuny.edu.

I just returned from a visit to the famed Googleplex for the Google Apps for Education Summit. Aside from the fun of seeing the Google “campus” (and that’s a fitting term) from the inside, which felt a little like getting the Golden Ticket from Willie Wonka, I learned quite a bit about where Google Apps for Education is going to be heading, and quite a bit more about what we (at Macaulay) can be (and I think will be) doing with it.

We first made the move of our alumni email accounts to Google last year. At the time, the alumni were stuck on an aging, moribund, Lotus Notes server, and the email was slow, unreliable, often clogged with spam, constantly in need of restarts. Things totally changed for them with the move to gmail. The new Google email experience for alumni (and a small pilot group of students) was nothing short of terrific. The new email system gave them huge storage, complete reliability, and an interface (Gmail, everyone knows it!) they already knew and valued. Given a choice (and we did some extensive focus groups with students), they preferred gmail not just to their Lotus Notes email (no surprise there), but also to the Microsoft offering we were also considering.

And the transfer was accomplished (over the summer–maybe not the best time!) with very minimal pain. Google technicians were completely helpful with that. But it didn’t take much help. The system is simple to administer and simple to use.

It’s now been almost a full academic year, and for email, I really couldn’t ask for better. The many complaints that students had about the old systems, both Lotus and Microsoft, have ceased. Usage is not particularly heavy (this is pretty much what I hear from IT folks in all of higher ed. Students don’t use their official email, and maybe not any email, very much or very often. They definitely want to have it, and when they do use it it’s important to them, but on a day-to-day basis it’s not the most important communication tool in their arsenal).

So now I’m looking ahead. And I’m looking beyond just gmail. The real power of Google Apps for Education is in the apps–not the email. This is where I want to take us. Google Docs, Google Sites, Google Calendar, Google Groups–these are actually extremely powerful communication and collaboration tools. And they’re all part of the package, all included, and to some extent already familiar to students. As we start to plan for the fall’s class of incoming freshmen, I want to start thinking about how we can use these apps within the specific context of Macaulay’s consortial model. Sites for building webpages collaboratively. Docs for student assignments and projects. Groups for student clubs and other kinds of multi-person communication, with Calendar for their planning. The examples that I saw from other campuses across the country were fascinating and inspiring.

None of these ideas would make me abandon our commitment to open source tools and applications–when those are the right tools for the job (which is frequently). The Google apps are going to be right for some purposes and not for others. But there’s also a lot to be said for meeting students where they are, for using the default tools that are the most transparent to students and require the least investment of diminishing college resources.

And there’s more than that. One of the biggest takeaways I had after the visit to Google was that the Project Managers for these apps have a real and sincere commitment–not just to making the best products for their corporation–but to really serving as an example and a model and a spur and an incentive for innovation and progress. They spoke at length and very persuasively about their commitment to keeping these apps accessible and available across platforms. They’re not looking to make things that only work in Chrome, for example, or only on Android. If it doesn’t work well for everyone, they don’t want to make it.

I know, it’s easy for people to say that, and easy for a corporation to co-opt that kind of energy. But I sat there and listened to and talked to those Project Managers. I can judge sincerity, and these people were listening and understanding and thinking (you could see the excitement about new ideas). And what they were thinking about was making things that would help students collaborate, communicate, and create. That’s what we all think about, and I felt very strongly that they were on the same page with that. So I think we’ll be doing more and more with Google apps (beyond just the email!) and I think we’ll be presenting some great model projects soon.

steampunk laptop from steampunkworkshop.comWhat is MTAG? MTAG is the Macaulay Technology Advisory Group–a group of students interested in helping chart the paths Macaulay will take in using technology, for current students and future students.  We had our first meeting this past Sunday, and we’re already looking at some great new ideas (see below!).  But we need more members.  Are you interested?  The time commitment is small–just one in-person meeting each semester, with all the rest of our discussion taking place online.  And the rewards are great.  You get the chance to make your voice heard.  You get the great feeling of knowing that you’re making things better for all Macaulay students.  You get a great credential to put on your resumé.  And you get to be the first in the Macaulay community to test new software and hardware as we start to think about making improvements. You can truly be on the cutting edge.  So if you’re at all interested in joining MTAG, drop me an email! (Or just leave a comment on this post).  Or jump right in and join our group on the Macaulay Social Network.

Now what happened at our first MTAG meeting? Well, here are some highlights of the Group’s first set of ideas/recommendations:

  • FlipCams–maybe try for the Mino next year instead of the Ultra.  It’s smaller and lighter.  Or maybe a different model–students prefer to have something that will shoot still images in addition to video.  Budget allowing, we will look into this. (Of course, everyone would love to have iPod Nanos instead.  But I don’t think we can sell that one to the Comptroller’s Office!)
  • Some people are noticing odd problems with the palm rests on the MacBooks–it seems that if you press down too hard with your palm or wrist, the MacBook interprets that as a mouse click.  This seems to happen mainly with the new (freshman) MacBooks.
  • About the Tech Fair–students feel that some sessions were too advanced for some students, and some were too simple (especially for our highly-advanced MTAG folks).  We will try to “track” the future Tech Fairs and put students into groups that more accurately match their skill levels.
  • How about those laptop sleeves? The MTAG folks like them, but would love to recommend better, more protective ones, more padding and a zipper, for the future–and in black, if possible, but with the Macaulay logo.  Again, we’ll see what we can do with the budget.
  • We need a tips and tricks page–especially keyboard shortcuts!  For example, the MTAG folks were happy to know that you can cycle from one application to another (in exposé), using the keyboard shortcut command+tilde (⌘ + ~).  Are there more tips? We can post them!  We can (and will) do this as a nice laminated handout, to go with the computers.
  • The highly-advanced MTAG folks, especially the engineering students, would like to have a highly-advanced workshop on installing Windows in Boot Camp.  This is not something everyone wants to do or should do, but we should offer more advanced skills workshops for more technically advanced students.

That’s a good selection of ideas, right? But I’m sure you have more of your own.  Or maybe you want to expand on these, or modify them?  If so, go right ahead and leave a comment here–or better yet, join MTAG!

Some special entertainment, direct from the lab.  Happy Halloween, Macaulay Ghouls!

IMG_0165Last Friday I had the marvelous opportunity to spend the day on the island of Staten, at Snug Harbor, joining some great Macaulay student volunteers (and one ITF volunteer) at the 2009 Gadgetoff.  This was a real happening, with a walking mechanical spider, pulse-jet powered carousel, enormous trebuchet (launching pumpkins and flat-screen TVs) and much much more.  There were three separate theater sessions of presentations (each presentation only a few minutes long) demonstrating ideas and projects from the sublime (the hydraulophone) to the heroic (the most amazing prosthetic arms and hands I’ve ever seen) to the ridiculous (the no-pants subway ride).  Outside and inside there were loud explosions, intelligent robots, close-up magic, and remote-operated submarines.  I do have to say that out of the dozens of presentations, only two of the presenters were female.  That seemed unbalanced, and I wish that the organizers had made more of an effort to strive for balance.  Women innovators are out there–we can’t let it continue to appear that the “smartest tinkerers and thinkers” are only male.

The best thing was that Macaulay volunteers really made the day succeed.  Our students and our ITF played a critical role in making everything work, making the day exciting and educational and enjoyable for all.  Take a look at the photo gallery (and some videos!) from the day, and be sure to congratulate your classmates who took part.  And let’s see if we can get more volunteers, and some participants, in the future.  I’d love to see Macaulay students up there on the stage presenting, as the future of the future–inventing, creating, imagining.  That’s what you all do best!